So why, exactly, do we buy cookbooks?
The simplistic answer, of course, is that we buy them for the recipes, but in reality, it’s almost never that simple.
We may buy a cookbook because we’ve seen the corresponding series on TV. We may have come to like or, even better, to trust the chef-author based on past cookbooks, through a blog or by way of an associated food business. We may want to try our hand at a particular cuisine or we may want to learn the basics. We may be dedicated followers of foodie fashion or we may just like the pictures, and there’s no doubt but that good photography and styling helps to sell.
Increasingly, photography in cookbooks is used, not only to show what the food should, in theory, look like but also to convey a representation of the lifestyle associated with eating that food. Whether we are subsequently disappointed when our dishes (or our lifestyle) do not turn out “like in the pictures” is another matter entirely. And while it can be helpful to see what a dish may look like at the end of our endeavours, some of my most trusted and well-used cookbooks (take a bow, Madhur Jaffrey) have little in the way of glossy pictures and are no less loved by me for that.
In the end, while the pictures are nice, it is the words that count. My favourite cookbooks are the ones that are worth reading not just for the recipes. Give me Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery and an armchair and I will curl up happily. Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater I like as much for their writing as for the style of their recipes. It’s important too, though, that the recipes work.